Pirate Party candidate for Governor of a Czech region from the Romani community says social exclusion has been ignored for 30 years
Karel Karika is the first Romani person in history to be put forward for the post of Governor of a Regional Authority by a party seated in the Czech Parliament. He became the lead candidate of the Pirate Party in the Ústecký Region and therefore one of seven Romani people running in regional contests this year, according to news server Romea.cz.
The candidate works as the manager of the St. Materna Home in Ústí nad Labem and is a recipient of the František Kriegl Award given by the Charter 77 Foundation. The Pirate Party has long been pointing out that the Czech Republic's approach to dealing with ghettos is not working because the Romani people living in them are excluded from contributing their perspective when decisions about them are made.
According to Pirate Party chair Ivan Bartoš, it is important to emphasize that the party is not addressing a "Romani issue" by featuring Romani people on its candidate lists, but rather that the party is dealing with issues relevant to all of society together with the Roma as partners. Karika says the biggest problem in the region is poverty, as it is the region with the absolutely highest number of collections proceedings underway, and that it is afflicted by problems of a social nature that have not been addressed for three decades which intensify with each passing year.
Q: You're running for Governor of the Ústecký Region. You are the very first Romani man to ever be given such an opportunity. Why should voters choose you?
A: Because there are no skeletons in my closet and because I have always worked for people irrespective of whether they were from the majority society or a minority. My work has never been motivated by money, I perceive it as my service to the people. That's how every politician should be. For example, half of my salary has always been donated to charity and to the poor. I am a person who has a vision and who seeks the best possible solution for everything. I know my way around politics, I am consistent, I cannot be bent or bribed.
Q: Each region has its problems and specifics. In which areas do you see the biggest problems of the Ústecký Region?
A: The biggest problem in the Ústecký Region is poverty. We have the highest number of collections proceedings underway in the country, the highest number of excluded localities, and our region is afflicted by social problems that have not been addressed for three decades and are intensifying year after year. That's also why we have the highest number of politicians who cheat and steal. Basically we've had bad luck with all our politicians ever since the Velvet Revolution, they did not think about the inhabitants of the region at all, but rather, they concentrated on themselves, on the party coffers or the party line, as in the case of the Northwest Regional Operational Programme (ROP Severozápad). [Translator's Note: This was a 2012 scandal about the untransparent distribution of EU funds in the Karlovy Vary and Ústecký Regions]. Currently the Governor is a member of the Communist Party, and if my Dad had lived to see that, 30 years after the revolution, he would never have believed it.
Q: How do the leaders of municipalities here deal with the excluded localities, the number of which significantly exceeds that of other regions in the Czech Republic?
A: The state of affairs continues to deteriorate because of the imposition of restrictions decided upon by the Government, local administrations and regional politicians. Take the housing benefit-free zones, or now this new amendment to the law on state social support where the Labor Offices are asking single mothers to prove they no longer live with their former partner. That's almost impossible to do, especially with complicated divorces, violent partners, etc. The biggest problem is that nobody has even begun to address excluded localities according to some kind of concept. Such a concept could be based on the analyses produced by the Agency for Social Inclusion, because there they actually see where it is necessary to put out the fire first and then begin to work systematically to bring people up from the absolute bottom back to normal life. First and foremost, what would aid the situation is the building of community centers, debt elimination, and resolving the collections proceedings, and then the attributes of phased-in social housing could begin to be introduced. That shouldn't be just a one-way street, but a two-way street. A family can begin living in quality housing, but if they fail financially, they will have to go to a lower standard, while a family that is prepared to live better will be able to move up one level. Unfortunately, though, newly excluded apartment buildings, localities and streets are constantly popping up in our region. This is because the traffickers in poverty have found an instrument for sucking absolutely all they can out of those who are the most impoverished. They offer housing in exchange for otherwise unpaid work, or they force the poor into disadvantageous leases, petty theft, and prostitution. The owners of these buildings are not residents of Ústí nad Labem or even from its immediate vicinity, but are from Prague and other cities. The money that they suck out of the most impoverished does not remain in our region, but travels somewhere else entirely. I keep drawing attention to this, but it actually is a social housing design flaw. The cities, the local self-governments, the municipalities should have a tool for administering properties and people could live in them for less money and then be worked with on the basis of a concept of some kind. Above all, that way the money would remain in the regional economy, not go elsewhere.
Q: What do you make of the slogans of the different parties, which are frequently aimed at disparaging the Roma or the socially vulnerable? What does that mean?
A: That testifies to the fully-born populism that our highest officials use in their speeches with relish. All of politics has coarsened and the lowest kind of dirt is effective with frustrated people. However, if those people realized that if they were to aid the poorest of the poor, then they would be better off themselves, they would not fall for this anti-Romani agitprop.
Q: What is the main campaign subject of your group in the regional elections?
A: Social themes, health care and environmental topics, renewal of infrastructure, digitalization, education of youth and transparent local authorities for the people. Hardly anybody here knows which office is in charge of what or what kinds of powers it has. They don't know what a politician can do for them.
Q: Are you meeting with Romani voters also during your campaign? What subjects are they interested in?
A: We are meeting with Romani voters, and they are interested in knowing whether collections proceedings are going to be made more acceptable so that it will make financial sense for people to officially work, because people in debt want to work, but the system today is set up so that the collections proceedings take practically all you earn. If a person is on welfare and works in the grey economy, he tells himself he will at least have enough money left over on which to live. However, that means the state loses revenue.
Q: How can Romani people be motivated to come vote?
A: Romani people are absolutely not aware that their fate is in their own hands, and not just their own fate, but also that of their children. I have been doing my best to explain this to them for a long time. It's all but in vain, though, because vote-buying among the poor has long persisted in our region. The parties hire guys for CZK 50 000 [EUR 1 800] to do their dirty work for them. The consequence is that for one or two hundred crowns [EUR 4 - EUR 8] Romani people vote for the parties that pay them to do so.
Q: This year is the sixth regional election since they began in the year 2000. Is there a reason why so few people turn out for these elections? Participation in the last two regional elections was about 35 %.
A: Most people don't even know what a Regional Authority basically does, because to them it is absolutely anonymous. People don't see that it involves the state administration, regional self-administration, delegated competences, and that a Regional Authority should be administered according to some sort of methodology, that it registers all of the social services, or that it is in charge of culture or tourism. People guess there's a Regional Authority in the regional capital of Ústí nad Labem, but they actually don't know what it handles. For us, for the Pirates, that's unacceptable, from the beginning we've been about more active involvement of people in the activities and decision-making of the Regional Authority. We're aware that there has never been anybody in office here yet who genuinely wanted to improve something. For 20 years we've been running in place. The people in power are either handymen or thieves. Up until now we've had politicians governing here without any conceptualized solutions for the region, without vision.
Q: How would you explain to the public what Regional Authorities are specifically useful for and what their powers are?
A: We'll begin by opening up the authority and digitalizing it. People will be able to participate in commenting on the budget, or to initiate changes in their own neighborhood themselves. We'll attend round tables with municipalities, with mayors, and together we will look for solutions to the problems that have long afflicted the region.
Q: Could the current second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic impact the outcome of the election? If voters fall ill or are quarantined they are able to cast a ballot under restricted conditions, but do you believe they will even turn out?
A: The Pirates have always been for online voting, but that has not yet managed to be implemented. We are working with the possibility that such a problem may arise, because people will be infected or quarantined, etc. Then there is the question of whether, in such a situation, the voters will even exercise their rights or not.
Q: What is your biggest criticism of the current regional leadership?
A: What bothers me the most is probably the total politicization of the entire Regional Authority, of all the organizations it funds, from museums to the Regional Health Authority. They have their own people everywhere, people who don't even comprehend the agendas they're in charge of, but there's good money there, and that just deteriorates the quality of culture, health care, and sports.
Q: If you win, do you have an idea as to whom you would go into a coalition government with and whom not?
A: We are the only party declaring whom we will never go into a coalition government with: the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), the "Freedom and Direct Democracy" (SPD) movement, Tricolor, and other parties that are not democratic, from our perspective.
Q: What is the first thing you'd do as Governor, if you're elected?
A: I would begin immediately addressing the excluded localities. I would draft a law on social housing, affordable housing, collections procedures, I would comment on existing bills on those topics, and I would look for solutions to those problems, and the Regional Authority could also enter the market and administer rental apartments, for example.
Q: Would you attempt to revive collaboration with the Agency for Social Inclusion, which ended its activity in the regional capital in 2018?
A: Decidedly yes. The ending of the Agency's activity in Ustí nad Labem was an error committed by politicians who don't even know what it is they want. If they were to have defined their aims, then the Agency itself would have looked for money from the EU funds for them, but unfortunately there was no interest in that on the part of the city leadership.
Q: Are you also working with the option of going into opposition?
A: Of course.
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